Irish spring breaks: Outdoor adventures for all the family

From kayaking down the river Blackwater, to stargazing in the Sperrin Mountains, there’s lots to explore around this island

Kayaking on the Blackwater river

“The shores of this Irish Rhine are so lovely that the sail on a sunny day is one of unequalled charm,” wrote Kate Douglas Wiggin of the river Blackwater in the 1901 Penelope’s Irish Experiences. “Behind us the mountains ranged themselves in a mysterious melancholy background; ahead the river winded its way southward, in and out, through rocky cliffs and well-wooded shores.”

I’m delighted to find that 122 years later, little has changed. Paddling down the final quarter of this majestic 170km-long river, from Ballyduff, past Lismore and Cappoquin, to its mouth at Youghal is, bizarrely, one of Munster’s lesser-known gems, and makes for one of the most memorable weekends my wife and I have spent exploring this island.

It’s thanks to Blackwater Eco Tours, a community-owned not-for-profit based in Villierstown, who not only drop-off and collect the kayaks each day, but also offer glamping pods, guided river tours and self-drive boats. Launching at the petite, sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Ballyduff, day one takes us to Cappoquin over the course of a soothing three-hour gentle paddle. Here the river is wide yet the riverbank is still “at reach”, arcing between woodland and fields of cattle who come down to drink, knee-deep, beside us.

Then comes the big gun: flowing beneath the magisterial splendour of Lismore Castle as it peers down upon the river like a medieval eagle on her eyrie. Originally built in 1185, it’s 1860s refit is owned by the Duke of Devonshire, having been owned by Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Boyle, among others, in centuries past.


The castle itself is still a private residence, but its superb gardens are open to the public, understood to be the oldest continually cultivated gardens in Ireland. The Lismore Heritage Centre is another must, which has a virtual reality experience detailing the castle’s distinguished history.

This beautiful, ornate village is worth the stay before and after the first day’s kayaking. Stay just across the picturesque arched bridge at Ballyin House (€85 per night, 086 8757850,, the Georgian ancestral home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For dinner, try Foleys on the Mall or Fullers, and for breakfast, lunch or coffee and snacks, you won’t go wrong with either the Baker’s Table, the Vault Café or Lizzie Brien’s.

The second day of kayaking departs from Cappoquin – call into Barron’s Bakery, and pop across the road to the Market Works Crafthouse gallery before you set off. This broad stretch is the domain of stately charms, of 18th century Anglo-Irish mansions and ruined abbeys winking out from the woods as the river widens and the pull of the tide hastens, or slows, your progress. It’s also the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon.

On an outgoing tide, the historic walled seaport town of Youghal, your final destination, is roughly a four hour paddle from Cappoquin. Sitting at the mouth of the Blackwater, it also has plenty to offer, with a lovely sandy beach, the Clock Gate Tower and St Mary’s Collegiate Church to visit too.

To cap off a great weekend, spoil yourself with a night in Aherne’s Townhouse & Seafood Bar (from €130 per room, in the centre of town, where the hospitality is warm, the bedrooms cosy and the seafood (monkfish, in my case) is in a league of its own. – Jamie Ball

Stargazing in the Sperrin Mountains

There is a lot to be said for a family trip to Northern Ireland. There’s the Giant’s Causeway, Belfast and the Titanic, of course, and a lot more besides. There are few places better to see the stars shine brightly as the Sperrin mountains. It is an official Dark Sky area, with remoteness and absence of artificial light making it one of the world’s best places for stargazing. There is also a dedicated star-watching centre. OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory at Daragh Forest brings everything there is to know about astronomy to life, with holographic displays, sky maps, virtual reality headsets and a ginormous stargazing telescope. And while staring at the stars you might as well be as outdoorsy as possible without sacrificing anything by way of comfort; Sperrin View Glamping is a stone’s throw from the Dark Sky Park, and just more than an hour from Belfast, right beside Beaghmore Stone Circles and close to Davagh Forest. The specially designed pods sleep up to five, with a specially designed viewing window so you can look up the night sky from the comfort of your bed. – Conor Pope

Pod sleeping two adults and two children from £115 per night. sperrinviewglamping

Camping in Hidden Valley

Less than an hour’s drive from Dublin, Hidden Valley Camping Resort in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, is a small but perfectly formed mini-resort that will keep everyone amused for days on end. It has pods and lodges as well as pitches for tents and caravans. It is not just a campsite, however; as it has multiple activities including mini-golf and an inflatable water park, which is the best way to give two fingers to a rainy day – wetsuits are provided too. – CP

Opens Thursday, March 16th.

Center Parcs

When it comes to family breaks in Ireland, the beast in the Longford woodlands cannot be overlooked. While Center Parcs can be very pricey – depending on when you book and how many activities you choose to do – it is also quite brilliant for both adults and children, and if approached with careful planning, it does not have to break the bank. The key is not to pile too many activities into each day, and to use the excellent self-catering facilities for at least some of your meals. You might also want to avoid school holidays and bank holidays as – understandably – prices soar when demand is at its peak. Renting bikes is essential and great fun, while the so-called subtropical paradise is a free and fabulous way to pass a couple of hours each day. With an indoor temperature of close to 30 degrees, you might actually feel like you are holidaying somewhere sunny without the need to apply any sun cream. There is also a spa and some decent restaurants. – CP

Three nights in a two-bed lodge in February starts at €999, add-ons excluded.

Fota Island Resort

This resort offers a mix of hotel rooms and self-catering lodges and is on the doorstep of the Fota Wildlife Park, which is a brilliant day out for the family. The town of Cobh is also nearby and day-trips to Spike Island come highly recommended. The resort complex has some decent pool options, a kids club and all sorts of lovely walks to keep you busy, while a spa and golf course are on hand, although they might not be for all the family. – CP

Rooms midweek in March start from €170 including breakfast.

Follow a link below to read the other sections of this guide

Irish spring breaks: Eat your way around Ireland with these five weekend breaks for food lovers

Irish spring breaks: From sculpture walks to festivals, get your cultural kicks with these weekend trips

Irish spring breaks: Five luxurious locations for an adult-only break